Last week, after a day of wild rain and wind, my husband and I ventured out on the last day of our South Carolina vacation. We biked along lush paths, sat by the pool to soak up some sun, and then drove to one of the beaches we have come to love. We walked down the long path to the beach. On either side there were dunes and a creek and scrub pines laden with huge pinecones. As we approached the fencing, we saw the vast expanse of sand, sea, and sky.
The sky was decorated with amazing clouds. I gasped and thought, “This is what sublime is. Sublime is the surf and sky dotted with this dramatic cloud cover in shades that run from bright white to cream to pale blue to pink to lavender. I said to my husband, “This beach is never the same twice. There is always something new and beautiful. Just look at that sky!”
I started to laugh remembering a time I spent last year with a group of three-years-old children, who were observing the cloud formations and commenting on all the shapes they saw. Some saw turtles and pirate ships, others saw castles and giraffes. Of course, one young pragmatist clearly proclaimed, “Don’t be silly! They all look like mashed potatoes!” I wrote more about this here.
As a poet, photographer, and teacher, I am attracted to the elusive nature of clouds. They represent creativity and possibility. They can shape-shift. If I was a superhero, I think that’s the superpower I would like – to change my structure – to become something else and then something else again. Clouds break apart and come together; they change color and shape and quality. They embody what it means to be creative. They are the definition of sublime. I wrote more my connection with clouds as inspiration here.
When my husband and I take photo trips, whether near or far, I am often attracted to doors and windows. I like exploring small quaint towns that have been revived by artisans and documenting what I see. Maybe I am drawn to doors because they signify possibility to me: “one door closes, another opens…” I am curious by nature and enjoy imagining what might be behind each door. Who”s inside? What stories do they bold? If the door is painted, why did the owner choose that particular color? How does that color reflect the mood and personality of the inhabitants? The door is like a dressed up package. Untie the bow, knock at the door, and find out what’s in store for you. There are so many choices – all is possible. Hope is at hand.
In the same way, I am also intrigued by windows. Where doors are solid and impenetrable, windows are translucent and reflective. I can see through, into the building and also see a collage of images in the reflection. To me, windows represent both the past and the future. I can look both back and forwards in time. What is created in the photograph is a connection been the past and future – what I left behind and what still awaits me. Photographing windows gives me the opportunity to play with color and light. I am able to compose and create a unique collage. Below are some examples of the photographic play I did on a recent trip to South Carolina.
I am a lover of stuffed animals. I collected many as a child and even more as an adult. My husband didn’t have many stuffed animals growing up because his parents thought stuffed animals were not a “boy thing.” They were not bad parents, just very misinformed. We began our animal collection soon after we began dating. At one point, we had a menagerie of seventy-two stuffed animals. As we moved from place to place, we had to narrow down our tribe, and I made many a child happy with my animal gifts.
A few years ago, when I was at my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, The Strand, I came across Mark Nixon’s book, Much Loved. Mr. Nixon took photographs of people’s stuffed animals and wrote about their origins and stories. It was such a sweet and comprehensive look at the importance of stuffed animals in people’s lives, both young and old.
Four years ago, I created community writing project to celebrate my school’s Young Authors’ Week. The project asked students to write about and take a photo of their favorite stuffed animal. I then compiled all the submissions into a big book that we keep in our school library. Both children and teachers loved this activity.
I thought I would immortalize some of my own personal collection. I realize that many of my stuffies are getting up there in age, as am I, and I want to make sure I preserve their memories.
When I was a kid, my favorite treat was fruit, and my favorite fruit was apples. I loved trying new varieties. I loved to cut them in boat-shaped wedges, rounded triangles, and circular disks. The disks always revealed a star. I thought apples were magical.
Then my mom introduced me to the pomegranate, which we called a Chinese apple back then. Pomegranates were actually native to Iran and Northern India. They were so exotic to me. I soon learned that you did not bite into the skin of a pomegranate. It had to be peeled starting from its petals, stripped in pieces, exposing, not white flesh, but rather sparking ruby and garnet seeds. The juice stained my fingers, lips, and chin. What a wonderfully beautiful, messy fruit.
Because they were expensive, my mom judiciously meted out when I could have the luscious pomegranate. She would wait for them to go on sale. When they were ninety-nine cents, we could buy one and share it. I used to head right to the produce aisle when I went grocery shopping with my mom. I’d run ahead and find the wooden crate in the center of the fruit section. If the sign said: 99¢, then I would take my time to choose the biggest, roundest pomegranate. I’d hold two, one in each hand, weighing them by their heft. Once chosen, I’d bring it back to my mom’s cart smiling. I had found my precious treasure, and I couldn’t wait to get it home.
When we got home, my mother washed the leathery red skin, dried it off, and handed it to me in a large shallow bowl with plenty of paper towels. I would meticulously peel the skin and the yellow-white membrane. I loved exploring each section of the pomegranate and pulling out groups of seeds. This adventure in eating was also a close scientific observation. Held up to the light, the seeds were translucent, the membrane was imprinted with the image of the seeds it encased, the skin looked almost hand-painted in shades of red that ran from blush to deep crimson. What a glorious fruit! Only God could create such a thing.
Later, I learned that it was the pomegranate that was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. I empathized with Eve. The pomegranate was hard to resist. As I opened each membraned section, plucked the seeds, and placed them in a bowl. I played a little counting game with myself. Pomegranates are supposed to contain 613 seeds, which relates to the 613 commandments in the Torah. Six hundred thirteen – what a large number, but I set out to count each one. I never counted exactly 613, but I got close – 598… 605… 586. One fruit with hundreds of seeds that must be the reason why the pomegranate symbolizes fertility, life, immortality, and wisdom.
As a child, the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone captured my imagination. I was born in April, so I loved the idea of spring being personified. The drama of Persephone being taken to the Underworld by Hades made me sit up and pay attention. Zeus warned Persephone not to eat anything while in the Underworld, but being an impetuous youth, she tasted a few pomegranate seeds. This event explains why Persephone finally returns to Demeter, who was in such despair losing her child that she made winter descend on the land. Since she didn’t eat all of the fruit, only a few seeds, Persephone was allowed to return every year, just like springtime.
A few days ago, I found myself all grown up and in the produce aisle. I spied the familiar wooden crate. Pomegranates were piled high. They were much larger than I had ever seen. They were as big as grapefruits, instead of navel oranges. I reached out to select one. Then I noticed the price – $4.95. I frowned and pulled my hand back. I stopped and paused to gaze upon the lovely Fruit. “My mother would yell at me,” I thought to myself. But my mother is in heaven now, and I think she would approve in the end. She was the one whose mantra to me was “Be good to yourself.” So I carefully selected the largest fruit with just the right amount of mottling. It was a beautiful object. I would bring it home, write about it, photograph it, and then taste it. Well worth the four dollars and ninety-five cents.
He rattles your windows and scratches at your door.
He turns snow to mud, then tromps across your floor.”
These lines come from the picture book, In Like a Lion, Out Like A Lamb by Marion Dane Bauer. It perfectly captures the variable nature of March weather. I was hoping to escape spring snow this year. This year, I desperately need spring to come early. I am through with gray, cold, and drudge. One more morning, using an ice scraper is going to put me over the edge. No more mittens or gloves, scarfs, or hats. March needs to get its act together and bring on the warmth, the sun, the flowers, the bees, and the songbirds!
And so… of course, I woke up yesterday morning to freezing rain, which quickly became snow. It came down heavy and wet. It stayed all day long. The flakes formed on the first crocuses, on the about-to-bud trees, on the wings of birds huddled under the trees. The wind whipped up freezing cold and fierce. I think it thought it was still January. I went to my closet and pulled out my heaviest coat and my double-thick mittens, and my Nordic woolen hat. I pulled on my snow boots and headed outside to brave this March snow – I hope it’s the last one. I decided to embrace the lion and make its path of frozen snow and wicked wind into art.
Flakes fall and fall
On roads, lawns, meadows,
And tall stands of trees.
Black birds crouch
Beneath the pines,
The mourning doves meditate,
Puffed-up and quiet
On bare, gray branches.
Snow continues – all day long
Straight and steady from the sky,
Collecting on every single surface.
A winter wind asserts itself
And whips around and around,
Stinging my cheeks and fingers,
Winter does not want to let go.
But I need winter to up and leave.
I need pink and yellow petals,
I need blue sky and white clouds,
I need the golden warmth
Of the springtime sun.
I desperately need to see
The fresh face of Persephone:
Grass beneath my feet,
In the soft, warm breeze,
The fragrant smell of
Green and growing,
The songs of the chickadees,
The squawks of the jays.
All the world welcoming spring.
I was sitting in the hallway of my school trying to get myself organized for the day. I posted my first Slice of Life entry and was wondering how I was going to write every day in the month of March. That’s when our art teacher came and sat down beside me. “I have a story to tell you,” she said. At first, I was thinking, “I have no time for stories. I wish I didn’t sit in the hallway. I have so much work to do!” But here I was, and I knew the art teacher always has such funny stories, so I took a deep breath and made myself present. I turned to the eager art teacher and listened.
Yesterday was the worst day! Everything I had planned had to be changed. The classes I thought were cancelled, actually came without warning. I was so disorganized and distracted that I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day. Then the 2nd grade class came into the room at the end of the day. They all started to paint, but then someone was singing in a very high voice “la… la… la… LA… la…” over and over again. I didn’t know who was singing, and I thought that high pitch was going to send me over the edge. However, I didn’t want to stop the singing because it seemed to me that someone was using the tune to help them work. Later on, I realized it was Madison. She came up to me after class and said that she had written a song while she painted and proceeded to sing it to me. It was quite a long song and had the same cadence that she had been singing. I am so glad that I hadn’t stop her singing process. What started as irritation became a joyful occasion.
We laughed together for a moment, and I vowed to find Madison a have her sing her song to me. This small moment made it again so clear to me how important it is to honor student’s imagination, to be present to these moments which nurture student growth. Later that day, Madison sang her song high and sweet and clear. I held back tears. She handed me a colorful picture and on the back was part of her song.
The simple breeze flies through my hair,
The wind is soft like a wind,
Itself the flowers are like a beautiful bloom,
The river flows carrying water.
The trees will swing through the wind.
La… La… La… La… La…
I must add that Madison is an EAL student, and it is even more important to me that we celebrate her use of English. I wonder what this song would sound like in Mandarin. I think I will ask her tomorrow.
It is time to sit down and write. Concentrate. Get your thoughts together. They scattered like leaves in a wind storm. Sit down. Think. It is time to write. You can do it, and you will. Now, sit down. I sit and stare. I play with the keys of my laptop. I pretend to write. I try to think of something. I make lists of all the things I need to do – I must do. Nothing is coming. Nothing makes sense. I seek some of my photographs. Maybe they will help me find the words. Finally, I take a breath. I surrender my mind to the images, and images form in my mind.
It is time for winter break: teachers are exhausted, children are restless, and COVID is on the rise. Everyone is weary except the young children. They are bright with anticipation for whatever holiday they celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas. Their sweet voices sing songs of cheer, helping to lift my spirits as I search for something to give me holiday spirit. I sat down with a table of Kindergarteners this week and asked, “What are you writing?” They all looked up at me perplexed, and one of them looked down at her paper and answered, “We are writing art!” I chuckled, “Oh, you are drawing! That’s a good thing to do!” I am ever-amazed at the new way in which children view the world. I have sought to keep that fresh, creative mindset as I age. Sometimes it is easy to do especially since I am surrounded by young, inquisitive minds, but sometimes I get “imagination block,” and I feel lost and without purpose. When I feel this way, I know I have to discover new paths to return to my creative source.
A colleague of mine has a ten-year-old daughter who loves Santa Claus and continues to believe. This has worried some adults who think it’s time for the girl to leave behind childish things. I, on the other hand, love Cassie’s tenacity to believe in the face of doubters both young and old. She will not give up her belief in Santa. I think this is because he represents generosity, hope, and magical thinking. Why would anyone want to give up that? Those are qualities that will bolster us as we make our way on this long journey. There is no need to toss Santa out, instead let’s celebrate him!
To get myself in the spirit of the season, I went to a neighborhood nursery where they sell trees, wreaths, and holiday gifts. They had an outdoor market with a treat wagon selling hot cocoa, mulled cider, and various kinds of cookies. Immediately my mood brightened with the smell of apples, pine, and juniper. I ventured into the gift shop and took my time looking at the ornaments, pottery, candles, and candle holders. I selected a gift for myself, a small tin candle holder in the shape of a tree. A smile appeared on my face, and I knew this was the right place to be. I lingered a little longer watching young children come into the shop to choose their favorite ornament for their tree. You could tell from their parents’ faces that this was an important moment, that they were building a Christmas tradition, that they were kindling their child’s imagination. I watched as a two-year-old selected a glass popcorn ornament for her tree. She clapped as her father picked it up and gave it to the saleslady, her golden curls shaking with glee. My heart was warm now, and I was ready to venture outside where everyone was awaiting the arrival of Santa. I stopped to get a cup of mulled cider before leaving. I breathed in deeply its cranberry, orange, and apple essence. I walked about the lines of trees and wreaths. I wasn’t in the market to buy; I just took a leisurely stroll soaking in holiday spirit.
On the way back home, I passed a street I have passed many times since living in this small town for nineteen years. It looks like every other street in town, except at Christmastime. The street is named St. Nickolas Way, and at this time of year, the street sign is donned with a Santa hat. Every time I pass by, I smile. This time, I decided to stop and take a photo to remind me of holiday hope and Christmas imagination. I headed home, with a warm heart and a mind full of cheer.
Books Celebrating Santa
A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw
Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera
Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Taveras
Dear Santa by Rod Campbell
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood
How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan
How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky
Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes
Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger
Little Santa by Jon Agee
Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (Illustrated by Holly Hobbie)
Santa Calls by William Joyce
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno
Santa Duck by David Milgrim
Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson
Santa Mouse by Michael Brown
Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene
Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley
The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett
The Big Secret: The Whole and Honest Truth About Santa Claus by D.W. Boom
The Real Santa by Nancy Redd
The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus
A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room. I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering. I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart. It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded. I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice. I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it. We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office. I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby. I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed. I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment. On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby. The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind. Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio. I just had to think small.
This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam. Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects. I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it. And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick. The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.
This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders. They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons. Two girls were painting with water colors. One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg. Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn. Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting. I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy. They were all creating in their own way. Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.” The other girls agreed loudly. I sensed a rebellion in the making. So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio. Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.” I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!
I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important. Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.
“Look what I made!”
“I made that!
Do you have rubber bands?”
“I want to make a slingshot.”
“Do you have balloons?”
“I want to make a stress ball.”
I love these statements and requests from our young learners. They keep me on my toes. I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.
Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!” I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind. She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me. Wow – she was determined.
Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!” I looked up at her surprised. “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”
“Ut…Oh,” I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”
So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”
She smiled back at me.
“I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”
Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”
I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).
Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio. We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn. We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”
I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing. She is usually a shy and quiet girl. But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice. I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.
“Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.
“I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them. We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it. We need a BIG Wonder Space.”
And this is why I love working with children. They are ever optimistic and determined. I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create. Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters. Every day, they fill me with hope.
September and October have buzzed by at a hectic pace. One week’s “To Do” list is accomplished only to be replace with the next week’s list. I feel like I will never get off this seemingly never-ending cycle. I keep arranging and rearranging my schedule trying to find bits of time to breathe. The bits are not enough, and I feel stress and anxiety creeping in. I know that I have to make myself slow down and concentrate on what makes me healthy and whole. I need to go back to poetry and photography. I need to return to natural beauty.
This summer, my husband and I planned an October trip to New Hampshire, and I’m glad we did. We thought that because of COVID we might not be able to follow through on our plans, but we found ourselves in dire need of nature and restoration. We headed out of New Jersey, up through New York state, into the Green Mountains of Vermont, and into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The nine-hour trip slowly melted all my tension away. As we drove, I watched the lush autumn scenery and forgot about all the things that need to be done; that tugged at me for attention.
I started thinking about how to capture what I saw with my camera and how to put words to the beauty I was witnessing. I focused on color and played with ways to express the fall foliage in a new way.